At the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, a young, as yet unpublished writer, hearing that writers were being singled out for persecution, burned a suitcase full of his manuscripts. Short stories, plays, essays and scholarly critiques were gone in a blaze. He fled to a remote mountain village where he lived and worked as a manual labourer for several years. He wrote too, but secretly.
At the end of Mao’s disastrous political campaign, thousands of intellectuals and artists were dead, but Guo Xingjian had survived. He returned to Beijing. The older established writers who survived remained wary, writing little, but Guo became part of a cohort of younger writers who grew emboldened with new freedoms and began to test the political climate with brave and brazen new works. After the long period of enforced silence, Guo wrote prolifically, as he would continue to do for the rest of his writing career.
Initially, he published novellas, short stories and scholarly essays; later he turned to the stage, and here he fell into trouble with the authorities. He was blacklisted, and a ban was placed on several of his writings. Rather than risk imprisonment, Guo fled Beijing in 1983, living on nature reserves and amongst the Han for several months. This experience was to provide the inspiration for his masterpiece, Soul Mountain. Later serving as a translator, Guo travelled to Paris and succeeded in settling there in 1987, where he began to write for the first time without fear or self-censorship.
In 2000, Guo Xingjian was awarded the world’s highest literary honour, the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Writing through the Cultural Revolution
The Case for Literature is a slim volume of twelve essays, most of which were written by Gao during the 1990s. In this collection, Guo manages to convey the truth and steel of what it meant to write in China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. The title comes from his 2000 Nobel Lecture, in which he describes how “when literature became utterly impossible, [he] came to comprehend why it was so essential”. For Guo, “literature allows a person to preserve human consciousness”. It has nothing to do with politics and everything with the individual.
This emphasis on the personal nature of writing is what saved him. When he was able to write openly, he wrote openly; when he couldn’t, he wrote secretly. When he was forced to flee, he fled. Guo would not martyr himself to be ‘a writer’. But he would always take the risk of writing—because he wasn’t writing necessarily to be read, he was writing to be himself. This lack of ‘preciousness’ makes that suitcase of burnt manuscripts less tragic and the Nobel Prize all the more fitting.
Traditional and Revolutionary Themes
Some of the essays in the collection are accounts of personal history (“Wilted Chrysanthemums”) or explanations of his work (“About Fleeing”). Others are more philosophical in nature and place Guo’s ideas within the streams and currents of 20th century intellectual thought.
His work is characterised by the blending of classical Chinese literature with western literary and philosophical influences. Guo is interested in the psychology of his characters and in the moral ambiguity of their situations, a striking departure from the uses of literature demanded by the Cultural Revolution. Even in his most serious works, however, he writes with simplicity, clarity and a wry humour. These essays are brilliant and thought-provoking, which may at times make them hard going, but for those with the will to persevere and an interest in the mind of a masterful artist, the rewards are many.
Some of the finest literature is born of repressive regimes, and Guo’s work is a powerful example. In The Case for Literature, we have a view of a rich imagination and the aesthetic philosophy behind it. But more interestingly, we are given a rare glimpse of a thinker and an artist, and of a man who is keenly aware of the value words have to a life.